The Tesoro Iron Dog’s 26th running begins on February 8, 2009. This 1,971 mile snow machine race traverses much of the same route as the Iditarod Sled Dog Race which starts the first weekend in March. However, the participants in the Iron Dog do not stop when they arrive in Nome. Rather, after traveling over one thousand miles from Wasilla to Nome, they retrace their tracks eastwards and head to Fairbanks. The route traverses rough and remote terrain, making it the both the longest and toughest snow mobile race in the world.
The Tesoro Iron Dog started in 1984 as the Iron Dog Iditarod. The name was then changed to the Gold Rush Classic, then the Iditarod Gold Rush Classic, and finally obtained its current name around 2000, when Tesoro Corporation became a major sponsor. Cash and merchandise awards offered for a variety of “firsts” – for example, First Polaris Team into McGrath, or First Rookie Team into Nome – total over $150,000 in 2009, making this one of the richest events in Alaska (the average purse for past 15 years is about $75,000).
Racers compete it teams of two, with each team member riding their own machine. Winter survival skills as well as mechanical skills are crucial. The trail can be rough in places and with machines traveling at speeds over 80 mph for large sections of the race, man and machine both take a beating. Severe cold, deep snow, gravel, overflow, poor visibility and other hazards are constants – and crashes are expected. Machines are typically used for the race and then consigned to the junk yard or stripped for parts – if there’s anything left that hasn’t been burned up. Finishers aren’t in much better shape – they are bruised, sore, and often have broken bones. It is not a race for the weak.
Nor is it, apparently, a race for non-Alaskans. The bulk of participants come from around the state, though there are a smattering of racers from the Lower 48. The 2008 race was the first ever finish of a team (three of them, actually) from the Lower 48. Unlike the Iditarod, this race has never been won by a non-Alaskan. Winning race times range from 30 hours to over 70 hours, with the majority of the finish times in the 40 to 45 hour range.
The Tesoro Iron Dog also has a recreational class. Participants in this class ride from Wasilla to Nome, getting a two day head start over the pro class. This group faces some of the same hazards – severe cold, rough trail conditions, and long hours on the machine at high speeds. They also are required to travel in teams with a minimum of two people with two machines, for safety purposes. Without the pressure of competition, however, they may be able to take in more of the rugged scenery through which they pass as the travel the Iditarod National Historical Trail.
The racers are held in Tanana, about 250 miles from Fairbanks, for the last leg of the race. This ensures that all racers arrive in Fairbanks in about a two hour spread in midday, making it a great event for spectators. This year the race ends on Valentine’s Day, making it a uniquely Alaskan way for sweethearts to celebrate the day.